By Katie Devine.
Every night, at an interval of approximately ten minutes, the bed shakes violently. The first time it happens, I think it’s an earthquake. I lie in bed, roused from near sleep by the jarring movement, and have trouble remembering where I am. I don’t think Cape Cod has earthquakes, but I allow for the possibility. Or the other possibility that someone has run up the stairs to the patio outside the bedroom, powerfully enough to move the furniture. I never feel safe sleeping in rooms with doors that lead to the outside, and I hate that through the sheer-curtain-covered windowpane I can see shadows moving slowly. I don’t know if they are from leaves, or from the heavy-footed man who tromped up the steps to look in at me. The house next-door, with its menacing cracked window and abandoned sheets on the clothesline only fuels this fantasy. I turn my back to the door; what I can’t see can’t hurt me. And then the rocking begins again.
In Iceland last month, I felt similarly uneasy. I woke from a dreamless sleep at three o’clock one morning to find light streaming through the blackout shades that I had neglected to close all the way. A local had asked me earlier that evening to go on a sunset stroll at midnight, but there was no actual sunset. There was never a sunset. In the week I spent there, it was as bright at midnight as it was at five in the evening or five in the morning. Instead of it feeling like I was there for a week, it felt like I was there for one endlessly long day, or perhaps year. Time lost all relevance. I was always exhausted, always restless. I could not find the ground while standing on jagged lava rocks in unending daylight.
These nights in Provincetown, like those nights in Reykjavik, are un-grounding me.
Days too. I’m at a writing workshop, reading through others’ manuscripts all week while mine is scheduled for discussion on the last day, and I’ve decided that I can’t write. It must be a fact, that’s how certain I am. I have convinced myself that what I have submitted is awful, and asked myself over and over, why are you even here? I don’t know how I could have been so horribly wrong as to think I could do this. The shaking of the bed could be from these reverberating thoughts, and the beats of fear they drum into my chest. I think about how I have quit my job, and how maybe I should take it back, if you could do such things as un-quit.
Time, again, feels irrelevant, as I travel, alone, drifting among the time zones. I feel separate from everything I thought I knew. I can’t remember my old life, and I can’t fathom my new one. I am tethered to nothing, to no one, a balloon floating overhead, slowly deflating as it heads out to sea.
The things that un-ground us aren’t always things.
I sit down on a mustard-yellow rocking chair in front of a “provisions” store that sells expensive gourmet food to tourists. I had tried to sit in a different chair, but a small, bald man ran over, frantically pointing. I’m sitting there. See? See my stuff? See? There was a pair of glasses and a small cup of coffee on the small table next to the chair. Oh, all right, I told him, as I kept moving. It’s okay, he replied, as if I had apologized.
Instead I choose a chair next to a woman speaking loudly with a Jamaican accent into her cell phone, giving directions to her ride. He arrives to pick her up and she leaves, and two men wearing biking shorts take her place, using the table as a second chair and eating fried chicken from containers on their laps. They finish and leave, and I am still here, book in hand, watching the cast of characters parade past me.
An older woman approaches slowly, leaning heavily on a metal cane, and asks if she can join me. She looks at me from underneath a baseball cap. Its casual style clashes with her elegant face. I hold the chair steady for her as she struggles to get comfortable. She shakes her head as she settles, telling me that her leg doesn’t work anymore, but her voice does. She demonstrates by singing a few bars: OH, it don’t mean a thing, if it ain’t got that swing. (doo-ah, doo-ah, doo-ah, doo-ah, doo-ah, doo-ah, doo-ah, doo-ah).Her voice is a rich, sultry alto, and I can see her on a stage, flirting with the piano player and seducing the audience. She performs weekly in Provincetown. I’ve still got it, she says.
She tells me she is 90.
She tells me that she was in Hollywood movies when she was younger, and that her name is Judy Brubaker. You can Google me, she says. She tells me all about one of her films, Untamed Women, gleefully recounting that it was hailed as one of the worst movies of its time. She seems oddly excited about this distinction, about how very bad it was. You have to watch it, she says. She was friends with Marilyn Monroe then, and tells me what a sweet, sad girl Marilyn was.
She reminds me again that she is 90.
Judy left her hometown of Detroit to join the Air Force in the 40s because her beloved only brother did. He didn’t make it home. She tells me how she sang with a band throughout the war, and mentions names like Tommy Dorsey and Nelson Riddle. I tell her I know these names because my grandfather played with them too. He was in the Army band, grew up in the same town as Tommy Dorsey, took music lessons from Tommy’s dad, played the saxophone and clarinet. She claps her hands together and tells me she loves saxophone players. I want them to meet, and fall in love. I show her his picture, and she remarks on his full head of white hair, which matches her own.
She asks, did I tell you I’m writing a memoir too?
They would be a handsome couple, Judy and my grandfather, a description he might use. She was a knockout once, as I see from movie stills on Google images, with her expressive brown eyes and high, round cheekbones. You are still a knockout, I tell her. She squeezes my hand and calls me a sweetie. In my mind, I am already calling her Grandma, and cataloguing a list of duets we can sing when I visit.
She makes me feel like anything is possible.
She is a singer.
She is an actress.
She is an artist.
She is a writer.
She is remembered.
She is everything I have ever wanted to be.
Google me, she says again. I was a star.
Judy gets up to leave. We have been talking for nearly two hours. We hug. She smells like sweet flowers. I stand in the middle of the street, watching her leave, my feet firmly planted on the asphalt. I stay there until I can no longer see her.
I sit down, and pick up my pen, and I begin to write.
I can feel the ground again.
Katie Devine is a writer who is leaving the corporate world behind to feed her wanderlust and will chronicle her journeys on Confessions of An Imperfect Life. Her writing has appeared on sites including Huffington Post, The Manifest-Station, XOJane and Thought Catalog. She is working on her first novel. When she’s not on a plane, you can find Katie taking endless Instagram pictures of sunsets at home in Santa Monica, CA. Connect with her on FB, Instagram or Twitter.
Jennifer Pastiloff, Beauty Hunter, is the founder of The Manifest-Station. Check out jenniferpastiloff.com for all retreat listings and workshops to attend one in a city near you. Next up: South Dakota, NYC, Dallas, Kripalu Center For Yoga & Health, Tuscany. She is also leading a Writing + The Body Retreat with Lidia Yuknavitch Jan 30-Feb 1 in Ojai (sold out) as well as Other Voices Querétaro with Gina Frangello, Emily Rapp and Rob Roberge. She tweets/instagrams at @jenpastiloff.
Love this post. Doesn’t matter how many things of yours get published, we ALL feel exactly like this. When a 90-year-old woman walks into your life and shares hers, she is giving you a gift, a writer’s gift. Writers walk through life with one less layer of skin, I’ve always believed, because her story arrived and affected the doubting you, the writer in you, to show you have just as much right to stories as she does, as any writer does.
That was wonderful writing, and your chance meeting sounds as if it was just perfect. Good luck on your journey!